a A

Ordeal of fear, confinement and whispering

Willy Zalmon is a Holocaust survivor. Along with his parents and uncle, he had to spend two years hiding in a hole in the ground on a farm, which is how at least part of his Jewish-Polish family managed to escape their Nazis persecutors. “For many years I was unable to talk about my ordeal because the memories were such a burden on my soul. I have slowly opened up at my daughter´s urging,” said Zalmon, who lives in Israel today.

Since his retirement, the 79-year-old has focused intensely on the history of his family and that of their friends. Zalmon recently visited the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen with a group of Israeli genealogists in order to get an insight into the documents and close possible gaps as to how his family had been persecuted. The group spent a week at the archive researching the fates of Jewish families.

Willy Zollmann was just nine years old on October 28, 1938, when two policemen knocked on his parents´ door. The three-person family was supposed to pack a bag and come to the police station at once. “On the same day my father was told to sell his company,” reported Zalmon. “It was being ´Aryanized´.” The expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany marked the beginning of the planned extermination of European Jewry. The Nazis deported approximately 17,000 Jews of Polish citizenship at the end of 1938. Willy´s father first came to Germany in 1920. Several years later he established himself in Leipzig.

They were taken to the train station in prison buses, transported to Poland on trains and then marched on foot for hours towards the border, wedged between SS troops. “The whole time there was no word on where we were going or why. It was a journey into the unknown,” according to Zalmon. The Poles did not initially want to let the group into the country, and the SS troops shot into the air so no one would get any ideas about turning back. After several hours´ sleep in the forest the group was eventually allowed to enter Poland.

The family went to their grandparents in Bochnia, about 40 kilometers east of Cracow. “As war broke out, I saw bombs falling,” said Zalmon. They didn´t think about escaping. Zalmon´s father had tried to leave Europe for Palestine or South America since the early 1930s. “But all the countries had closed their borders to Polish Jews. Emigration was impossible.”

Ghettoization followed. Bochnia´s Jewish population had to move close together into a few rows of houses. The family stayed alive by working in a factory. “My father and I made winter clothing for the military, and that´s how we escaped the so-called `Actions` in the ghetto,” Zalmon remembered. Young people had to watch how the Germans transported all Jews who didn´t work in the armament factories or other companies which supplied the Wehrmacht to the death camps. Zalmon´s grandparents and other relatives were among them. “I never saw them again,” said the survivor. The old and sick were murdered on the spot. “The Nazis shot a blind woman who was not fit for transportation in cold blood in an interior courtyard. The sound of that shot has been burned into my memory.”

Zalmon himself became sick during the next round-up, and he and his mother hid in a basement shed for two days in order to escape being transported to a death camp. As the situation grew more tense, the family eventually sought a more permanent hiding place. They were able to take shelter with a Polish farm family seven kilometers from Bochnia, whom their grandfather had once helped out with a loan. Willy, his parents, uncle and four others shared a specially dug hole in the ground under a barn. “It was covered up with wooden planks and hay so you couldn´t see anything from the outside. We had just enough space to lie down and could only move around on our knees. We each dared to go out and get some fresh air for an hour under the cover of darkness,” reported Zalmon. The ordeal of fear, confinement and whispering lasted two years before the village was liberated by the Russians in January 1945.

The then 16-year old began to study like mad, passed his final exams and attended the technical university in Cracow. In 1949, after the founding of the State of Israel, the family was finally able to fulfill their long sought-after dream of emigrating. They sailed from Marseille to Haifa, where Zalmon has since made his home. “I resolved never again in my life to set foot in Germany,” said the Israeli. He has not been able to keep that resolution entirely. After successfully completing his engineering studies and his career as a leading engineer, a business trip to Bonn came up in 1979. Zalmon described his feelings at that time: “It was difficult but I told myself it was in Israel´s interest.” He has been to Germany several times since then. The Holocaust survivor has never returned to his hometown of Leipzig.